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Venezuela’s Top Comedian Feels the Heat

Laureano Márquez is not just a comedian. A political scientist by training, he uses his act to unmask the absurdity of the Venezuelan regime.

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“The U.S. was colonized by British settlers who came to the New World with their families, perhaps a pet or two. Meanwhile, Latin America was colonized by Spanish fortune seekers who left their wives at home, and when a guy goes on a long trip by himself … well, no good can come out of that.” Laureano Márquez, more commonly known as just Laureano, is Venezuela’s most popular stand-up comedian. A few weeks ago, I heard his act along with a crowd of Venezuelan expats in Austin, Texas. He warmed them up by riffing on Venezuelan culture. “Venezuela is the only country in the world where, if you’re stuck in traffic, a street vendor will sell you a nice cold beer … along with a copy of the Transit Law, where it clearly states that drinking while driving is illegal.” His act had just begun, and the crowd was already in stitches.

Laureano’s brand of comedy feeds on the chaotic reality that confronts Venezuelans every day: the lack of basic staples, such as toilet paper or sugar; one of the highest murder rates in the world; and a political system that seems comical even by Latin American standards. But Laureano goes beyond the easy targets. A political scientist by training, his comedy is rooted in an understanding of Venezuelan identity that comes close to a sociological treatise.

His act is also laced with deep concern about where the country is headed. The absurdities of Venezuelan political life -- this is, after all, a country where the president thinks his dead predecessor speaks to him through birds -- have made Laureano’s popularity soar. “Funny thing,” he told me later when we sat down to chat, “I’m also very popular with the state security services.”

“The U.S. was colonized by British settlers who came to the New World with their families, perhaps a pet or two. Meanwhile, Latin America was colonized by Spanish fortune seekers who left their wives at home, and when a guy goes on a long trip by himself … well, no good can come out of that.” Laureano Márquez, more commonly known as just Laureano, is Venezuela’s most popular stand-up comedian. A few weeks ago, I heard his act along with a crowd of Venezuelan expats in Austin, Texas. He warmed them up by riffing on Venezuelan culture. “Venezuela is the only country in the world where, if you’re stuck in traffic, a street vendor will sell you a nice cold beer … along with a copy of the Transit Law, where it clearly states that drinking while driving is illegal.” His act had just begun, and the crowd was already in stitches.

Laureano’s brand of comedy feeds on the chaotic reality that confronts Venezuelans every day: the lack of basic staples, such as toilet paper or sugar; one of the highest murder rates in the world; and a political system that seems comical even by Latin American standards. But Laureano goes beyond the easy targets. A political scientist by training, his comedy is rooted in an understanding of Venezuelan identity that comes close to a sociological treatise.

His act is also laced with deep concern about where the country is headed. The absurdities of Venezuelan political life — this is, after all, a country where the president thinks his dead predecessor speaks to him through birds — have made Laureano’s popularity soar. “Funny thing,” he told me later when we sat down to chat, “I’m also very popular with the state security services.”

¨When I was four I discovered I could imitate my father. This made him so furious that he gave me a spanking. That day I learned I wanted to be a comedian, and I also learned of the repression that comes with it.” Laureano began working as a writer in the 1980s for Radio Rochela, Venezuela’s most popular comedy show. Radio Rochela’s comedy was mostly political, and it was enormously influential. A single sketch could make or break a politician’s reputation. The late Hugo Chávez took aim at the show as soon as he came to power. In 2007, he revoked the broadcasting license of the station that hosted the show, so it went off the air.

By that time, Laureano had moved on. In the 2000s, he began writing profusely for Tal Cual, an opposition newspaper that has also disappeared due to government pressure. For a while, Laureano himself was not on the government’s radar screen. That changed in 2005. That year, Chávez announced that he was changing Venezuela’s official coat of arms because his young daughter, Rosinés, had asked him why the horse on the seal was looking the wrong way. On a whim, Chávez decided to re-design it, saying that the horse should gallop “to the left.”

Laureano teed off, and in his next op-ed he penned a sarcastic letter to the young girl. In it, he asked her to use her influence on her father to suggest other measures, such as cutting ties with Cuba or treating the opposition less harshly. The authorities were not amused. A judge ordered the letter removed from the Internet, alleging that it was disrespectful to a minor. To this day, it can only be read on foreign websites. Laureano and the paper incurred heavy fines.

When I met Laureano in Austin, I asked him about the heavy undercurrent of anxiety in his comedy. “I’m deeply concerned about where our country is headed. It gets harder and harder to laugh about the situation. I was kidnapped when I was entering my home a few months ago, and this has shaken me.”

I asked him about the balance between tragedy and comedy. “It’s no balance. Tragedy is essential to my comedy,” he said without skipping a beat. “When freedom is threatened, comedy can be the only hiding place in which freedom can be safe. There was a Spanish writer from the early twentieth century named José Francés, who wrote that a comedian is a man that stops at the side of the road and contemplates the path of his life. When confronted with human misery, he is deeply saddened, but when the sadness reaches his brain, it has become laughter. … Comedy is a great threat to dictatorship because it unmasks it. That which has been illuminated with the truth of comedy cannot be hidden anymore.”

“Still,” he concluded, “it is impossible for me not to feel terribly sad when I go on stage to talk about what is going on. Sometimes I speak about serious things in my act, and people begin to cry. But I do it … because it is important.”

Photo Credit: Jessica Naranjo Mattioli

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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